Reef Festival defies Debbie
WHEN Cyclone Debbie struck the coast on March 28, Whitsunday Reef Festival chairwoman Margie Murphy almost gave up hope for the 17th running of the annual event.
But today, against all odds, the four-day event will go ahead, attracting more than 5000 people to the Whitsundays, boosting tourism and ensuring immediate economic benefits.
Back in March, with so many businesses destroyed, Ms Murphy said she thought the festival's sponsorship options had been wiped out.
But just a few weeks after the cyclone, Craig Tatnell, the owner of Townsville-based Above Ground Zero Fireworks (AGZF), called her and said, "Margie, the show must go on".
Mr Tatnell offered to provide the Friday night fireworks for the festival free of charge - and Ms Murphy said when she told the festival committee of 12, the decision was swiftly made to forge ahead with plans for the full community event.
"It gave us the inspiration and confidence to be able to put on a festival," she said.
"We thought it was so important for the community to celebrate and show everyone that Airlie Beach is operating and ready to party.
"And once the sponsorship drive started, we were very surprised and heartened by the great response from locals."
Ms Murphy said the committee, supported by a team of 30 volunteers, began approaching artists and performers who all offered "discounted cyclone rates" to support the struggling region.
Some of their greatest achievements included securing Friday and Saturday headline acts King Social and the Potbelleez.
With council event applications finalised, artists booked, flights and accommodation reserved, the logistics of road closures put in place, and equipment suppliers and contractors lined up, the festival the Whitsunday community knows and loves finally began to take shape.
Crucially, generous offers of sponsorship from businesses and a community struggling to salvage itself, began rolling in.
Ms Murphy said committee members essentially worked another full-time job, while all maintaining their own full-time jobs, to guarantee the celebration could go ahead.
"We mostly burn the midnight oil. Nobody gets paid, but it's very rewarding for all of us to know we've been able to collectively produce an event of this scale for everyone to enjoy," she said.
Ms Murphy said committee members and volunteers (who would begin thinking about next year's festival "pretty much straight away") would now be on the job each day from early in the morning until late in the night.
Popular festival events from previous years will feature again this year, including the Friday night fireworks and Saturday Street Parade, and there will also be new events including the Mantra Magic Mile running races.
Adding to the fun will be carnival rides, food stalls, pop-up bars, the Telstra Family Fun Day, vintage cars, joy flights, big bands, markets and even 'Flickerfest'.
Ms Murphy said accommodation in town was nearly, if not completely, booked out, and organisers were hoping for as many locals as possible to come and show their support.
Tourism Whitsundays Sales and Marketing Manager Natassia Wheeler said the festival was expected to attract visitors from Mackay, Townsville and the surrounding areas, and was important for locals as it instilled a "strong sense of community pride".
"The committee has certainly shown real resilience this year, given the many challenges they have faced since the cyclone, and the fact they have been able to stage yet another festival in these circumstances is testament to their dedication, hard work and commitment to the region," she said.
Whitsunday Regional Council Executive Officer, Economic Development and Tourism Melanie Davies said the significant economic benefits of the festival would be three-fold.
She said the full schedule of events provided ongoing entertainment for people who were already visiting the area, it also attracted people to the region from further afield, and it provided an action-packed itinerary of things to do and "vibrancy" for locals.
"The festival makes the Whitsundays a fun place for locals to be," she said.
"It's a stimulus to our economy, and the tourists who are already here will also increase their spending in the region."
Ms Davies said the economic benefits and financial boost would help shops and restaurants through increased trade, often also allowing businesses to employ more local staff.
She said it was crucial to continue to lift the spirits of locals after the Category 4 cyclone left the region in pieces.
"If you've got happy, healthy vibrant activities for our locals to attend, then it's a positive place to be," she said.
"And, if you've got vibrancy, there's a sense of community pride and belonging. The cyclone put a dent in all of us, so we were all vulnerable and, with events like this, we're becoming a connected community again."
Whitsunday Mayor Andrew Willcox said the Reef Festival was one of the outstanding highlights on the region's annual event calendar with "something for everyone".
As one of the festival's sponsors, he said he was honoured to support the event "which brings unity to our diverse region and showcases our beautiful surroundings".
Festival Treasurer Lisa Stockow said organisers were grateful to council and all of the festival's sponsors.
"We've had some amazing sponsors and everyone has pulled together and sponsored us with either money, donations, prizes or the help of volunteers. Everyone's just really excited that it's going ahead," she said.
Ms Stockow said local schools had also been getting involved, including year 12 students from Proserpine High School who would be helping volunteers to serve and cook from the barbecue and sell merchandise during Friday night's festivities. She said the high schoolers would also help organise the many children's activities throughout Sunday's Telstra Family Fun Day.
"The festival will be a big pick-me-up. I just think it will be a great environment," she said.
Ms Murphy said the Whitsunday Reef Festival celebrated what it meant to live in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef "as Airlie Beach comes alive with thousands of people enjoying events all over town including its vibrant main street, and picturesque foreshore".